• Richard

The Problem of Being an Environmentalist

It’s not easy being an environmentalist. For the most part, you find yourself swimming against the tide, although this is changing slowly but surely. What do we have in common? I would argue: a caring nature, conscientiousness, a concern for current and future well-being, informed by knowledge. In short, wisdom.


Is it possible to care *too* much? I’ don’t know. There is a cost to be paid – that’s for sure. We will confront accusations of hypocrisy; being a spoilsport; a ‘buzz-kill’. If we are honest, there is a kernel of truth there. Discarding your principles at times when it is inconvenient, arguably, means they weren’t principles at all – more like a strongly-held preference. But not doing so still makes you an outlier in society generally. There’s an inflexibility evident that some will read as condescension (rightly or wrongly).


Let’s take a few examples:


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“Do you want to try going to X for dinner?”

– They don’t have vegan or even vegetarian options. We’ll have to go somewhere else, sorry. Have you heard of all the horrible suffering in factory farming? There’s a book you might like to read…


“How about getting a dog?”

– That would be nice, but did you know that a medium-size dog can have the same carbon footprint as a small car?


“I like to have yoghurt for lunch.”

– Me too, but I will be cutting it out soon. Did you know calves are separated from their mothers within 24-48 hours? It’s tragic, really.


“The ocean really looks beautiful today.”

– It really does; almost makes you forget there’s over 6 billion pieces of garbage floating out there, and plastic in most of the fish.


“I’m really glad we’ve finally booked our holiday.”

– Me too, I can’t wait. Did you remember to offset our carbon emissions, though? Let’s check how long the flight is.


– Are those eggs free-range?


– Is the paper 100% recycled?


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You get the idea. It’s not exactly the picture of a happy-go-lucky, carefree person.


I think there’s a few salient points to be made here. As environmentalists, we are part of a truly global community trying to make things better. In doing so, we need to recognise we’re not perfect. It’s okay to have the occasional, small “cheat”. Never permitting this would be a kind of fundamentalism. In other words, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In this way, we can be kind to ourselves as well as those around us. The important thing is sincere effort.


We also need to recognise that, in making this sincere effort, there will inevitably be a tension between principles of sustainability, environmentalism, animal rights etc. and the status quo. For instance, many of us live in places where getting by and being productive is nigh on impossible without using a car, contributing to air pollution and climate change. Participating in this system doesn’t make us hypocrites: we can exist inside a long-standing system (having had no choice in how it was constructed) yet work diligently to improve it for the long run.


In terms of improving how environmentalists are perceived, it’s also important to concede when critics make a valid point. Instances of this a few and far between nowadays, as tribalism and political partisanship corrodes our discourse. Dismissing a conservative viewpoint out of hand, truly held and based on facts, is just as bad—and indicative of lazy thinking—as the astoundingly stupid argument that environmentalist = “greenie” = communist.


I think history will judge us kindly. Let’s try not to alienate those who would be friends and allies in the movement.


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